Optimism vs. Hope
This week I have the happy task of preparing a sermon on the very seasonally appropriate theme of hope. “Hope” is one of those words that is overused, abused, and reduced to marketing slogans or political campaigning, but which is nonetheless a vitally important word to retain. In my reading, I continue to make my through Miroslav Volf’s Against the Tide and was intrigued to come across his distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism, according to Volf, is based on “extrapolative cause and effect thinking” whereby we “draw conclusions about the future on the basis of experience with the past and the present.” Hope, on the other hand, is based not on situation-dependent possibilities or predictive accuracy, but on the character and trustworthiness of God.
So it would seem—at least according to Volf—that it is quite possible to be hopeful but not optimistic. Here’s a quote:
What we need… are not stories of optimism but narratives of hope. On a psychological level, optimism is about “feeling good” about yourself because you are “the capital of the future.” The obverse of such optimism is the denial of the horrors of history and disregard for ruined lives. Authentic Christian hope, on the other hand, is about the promise that the wrongs of the past can be set aright and that the future need not be a mere repetition of the past.
To hope does not mean to dream ourselves into a different reality, but to embrace the promise that this reality, suffused with suffering, will be transformed into God’s new world. We must acknowledge the underside of history; otherwise, we will never be redeemed. The good news is that those who hope can acknowledge the dark side of their history because the divine promise frees them from captivity to the past.